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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 115

Senator SANDY MACDONALD (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Trade) (10:10 PM) —I am pleased to make a contribution to the debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 and to follow my friend opposite, Senator Forshaw. I felt that his heart was not really in it tonight. Perhaps it was the same speech he made in 1995 and 1996. I am delighted to be reminded—I had forgotten—that Senator Forshaw was in the AWU. Perhaps he was secretary at the time of the wide-comb dispute. That was the time when the AWU created a situation where Australian shearers voted with their feet. The AWU told the shearing industry that they were not permitted to use the wide-comb. This was a method by which they could earn just as much or more with less effort. It was a tool of productivity. The AWU said that it was not available to them. These very hardworking Australians scratched their heads and said, ‘You blokes want to be in the real world.’

The result of that action by the AWU in the early 1990s meant the end of the closed shop—which was a fantastic result. The traditional bullying aspects of the AWU organiser coming into the shed uninvited ceased to occur. The closed shop finished, which has resulted in the AWU having very few, if any, members in the shearing industry at this time. The shearers voted with their feet because they could see that the representation of their standards and their aims were not presented by their union.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is another step in our economic infrastructure to set Australia and Australians up for the future in a globalised and competitive world. It is about fairness and choice in the workplace and it is about balancing the interests of both employers and employees. It is not anti-union and it is not pro-employer; it is very much pro-Australia. Australia, with its 20 million people, is the 12th biggest economy in the world. The economies of Australia and New Zealand combined are near equal to that of our 10 ASEAN neighbours in the north—one of them, of course, being Indonesia, with 223 million people. All Australians should be very proud of those statistics.

Australia is a regional superpower in many respects—be it in energy, in agriculture or in services. This is largely due to the productivity and ingenuity of Australian workers and employees. No government can invent the economic future. It takes partnerships between government and the workforce and between government and leadership right throughout the community. It is a journey together. Government can put in place the infrastructure and provide a tax system that works, an infrastructure that works, a waterfront that works and a welfare system that is fair to all but, at the end of day, it is the partnership between government and the community from which it can extract the very best effort for the great majority of its citizens.

I would like to see Australia in the top 10 economies of the world, and I think that can be done. It is not an unrealistic expectation, but what will it take? It will take a further strengthening of our economy through increased productivity, the creation of more jobs and the associated decrease in unemployment, and a continuation of low interest rates and low inflation. These things have not happened through chance; they have happened through cooperation in the workplace. The Australian government have been strengthening our economy for 10 years now and will continue to do so in the future. We are governing for all Australians, both employers and employees. The Labor Party claims to represent average wage-earners, but it only represents the ever-increasing irrelevancy of the Australian union movement.

It has already been pointed out tonight that union membership in this country was 51 per cent of the work force in 1976, in 1990 it was 40.5 per cent and in 2004 it was down to 22.7 per cent and only 17.4 per cent of the private sector were members. The union member movement has lost its relevance and part of its continuing decline is the position that their paid-up representatives in this place have taken on reforms in the Australia economy. Each time the ALP cries wolf and predicts doom and gloom or that the sun will not come up tomorrow, the more average Australian workers, and potential union members, realise that the ALP is no longer a captive of the real economic world that Australia finds itself in through prudent economic management.

This government’s record is something of which we can be very proud. Not just the government but also the whole community can be proud of it. The government’s previous workplace relations reforms have helped deliver higher wages, higher productivity, more jobs and lower interest rates. Ultimately, the best protection for workers, and the best guarantee of job security and higher wages, is a strong economy. A modern workplace relations system is an essential component. I think it is absolutely true what the Rt Hon. Tony Blair said—that fairness in the workplace begins with a job. The heavily regulated workplace relations systems in the 1980s failed to protect one million Australians from being thrown onto the unemployment scrap heap. We will always remember Mr Keating’s unemployment record when it reached over 11 per cent.

In our time in government, we have created 1.7 million new jobs since March 1996. Incredibly, 900,000 of those have been full-time, there have also been 800,000 part-time. In contrast, between March 1989 and March 1996, there were only 188,000 new jobs created by our political opponents and 519,000 part-time jobs. Unemployment is presently at 5.1 per cent. In the past 12 months it has consistently been at a 30-year low. When Kim Beazley was employment minister, unemployment reached a post-war peak of 10.9 per cent.

Real wages have increased by 14.9 per cent since 1996, compared to 1.2 per cent under 13 years of Labor. During the period of the much heralded accord, the deliberate policy of the ALP and the ACTU was to suppress wage growth and reduce the minimum wage. Only this year Kim Beazley boasted that:

We achieved 13 years of wage restraint under the accord. The wage share of GDP came down from 60.1 per cent when we took office to the lowest it had been since 1968. We left office with the wage share of GDP at 55.3 per cent.

The minimum wage declined by around five per cent in real terms between 1983 and 1996 under Labor.

I will now turn to industrial disputes. Under the coalition government, industrial disputes have consistently remained at the lowest level of strikes since records were first kept in 1913. In 2004 the level of industrial disputes was 45.5 working days lost per 1,000 employees. The yearly average rate of disputes in the 13 years of Labor was 192 working days lost for every 1,000 employees—nearly five times as much. In 1993, at the height of the system of compulsory arbitration and unions power favoured by the Labor Party, and to which its policy would return us, the rate of industrial disputes was 1,273 working days lost per 1,000 employees. That is not a very good record to take to the Australian people, and I think the Australian people judge the Labor Party on those figures.

In 1996, in the first round of industrial reforms when the workplace relations system was last updated, the same predictions of doom and gloom were spouted by Labor and unions. I have to make the point that in question time over the last couple of weeks there have been more questions to Senator Abetz relating to Welfare to Work and on IR than there have been to the respective ministers in the House of Representatives. In the case of Welfare to Work, Minister Dutton in the House of Representatives has taken fewer questions than Senator Abetz and, certainly, Minister Andrews, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, has taken fewer questions than Senator Abetz. These questions from the ALP, and speeches to be sent to their union secretaries, are window dressing. It is a show of just how hard they are working and how diligent they are being on their behalf in the Senate. I can think of no other reason for it.

I want to turn to some of the comments and speeches that were made in 1996 in the first round of industrial relations reform. It is like deja vu. I will first mention my friend Senator Forshaw who preceded me tonight. This is why I thought that his speech was a rerun of 1996 when he said:

The Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996 is a draconian piece of legislation ... this legislation attacks the very core of a system of regulation of wages and working conditions and the settlement of industrial disputes that has underpinned our great democratic society for almost 100 years.

He could have said that tonight. He went on to say:

The government says that its legislation is designed to promote employment and reduce unemployment.

It has. He then said:

But there is simply no evidence that this type of legislation will achieve these objectives.

Acting Deputy President Forshaw, I know you are in the chair now, but you are wrong. He went on to say:

... once you remove the protections that exist in awards, as this legislation does, it will lead you very quickly to a position where employees will be worse off and will lose take-home pay.

I do not think that is right. Senator Bishop, another senator who I respect a great deal, said this in 1996:

The bill before the Senate today will result in lower wages and conditions in a range of industries.

That has not happened. He went on:

All this bill offers Australians is a 19th century industrial relations agenda in a 21st century world. The legislation should seek to provide security for the future, not turn the clock back to the insecurities of the past.

It did not.

I will finish with some of the comments of Senator Carr. He said:

... we see this bill as being obnoxious, insidious and fundamentally hostile to the interests of working people in this country. We see it as fundamentally opposed to the maintenance of living standards for working people in this country and as a device ...

Senator Boswell —Who is this?

Senator SANDY MACDONALD —This is Senator Carr. He went on:

... aimed at redistributing wealth and power towards people who are already extremely well positioned within our society.

The only think that I think would be obnoxious, insidious and fundamentally hostile to the interests of average Australian workers is having Senator Carr represent them. In fact, the thought of Senator Carr being in government and on this side of the house is a very grim thought. The Australians who I know out there would think exactly the same way as I do.

Senator Lundy —You have no argument so you resort to personal attacks.

Senator SANDY MACDONALD —None of these things have happened. In contrast, the coalition has helped create more than 1.7 million jobs. It has increased real wages by 15 per cent, Senator Lundy. It has achieved the lowest unemployment in three decades. It has also seen the lowest level of industrial disputes since the bargaining at the beginning of last century. Hearing these sorts of figures and this sort of record must be like eating crow for our political opponents. It must really stick in their craw. They are a party that says that they can represent the interests of average Australian workers, and we are the people who have delivered. That is because we had the right policies and because we are interested in governing for all Australians.

Labor has no alternative to bring the workplace relations system into the 21st century. In fact, all they have said is that they would rip the legislation up if they got into power. So what does Labor stand for? Mr Beazley is loath to say that he would roll back this particular legislation—he used that phrase terribly effectively with the GST. This is the first opposition to suffer from reform fatigue before ever getting into government. They are reform fatigued. They have been 10 years thinking about possible proposals and changes to make this country a better place and they have not got any. They have no ideas. They wonder why they are not in government—they have not earned the right to be in government. I am not saying that they may not in the future; I expect that they may at some stage, but it will be a little while. We have not seen any sign or any form—

Senator Boswell interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Order! Senator Boswell, you are interjecting and you are not in your seat. Cease interjecting, and bear in mind that you are not sitting in your own seat.

Senator SANDY MACDONALD —Thank you for your support, Mr Acting Deputy President. The interjections were worrying me greatly. I have in the past mentioned my time dealing with the AWU. I had a very good relationship with them, I have to say, as you might expect. I am an employer and like most other employers out there I want my employees to be happy, healthy and properly paid and as productive as they can be. Almost all business owners, employers and companies worth their salt would have the same views as I do. If they do not, in this time of record employment the employee will go down the road to another employer.

This is a time of very high employment. In my city of Tamworth, for the first time in my memory even people with very limited skills have jobs available to them. In fact, we have almost full employment in Tamworth. There are jobs on A-frames in Peel Street in Tamworth. Today, they are advertising for people with very limited skills to come and get a job. It is a very exciting time and an exciting opportunity. The Work Choices legislation allows for this mutual respect between an employer and an employee to be strengthened.

Unfortunately, the unions have attempted to scare people into thinking that as soon as this legislation passes Australian bosses will suddenly change and they will be systematically exploited. What an insult to the average Australian. The majority of voters believe that the Australian government has done a good job over the last 10 years. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have looked after this economy. Our interest rates are down. Economic growth is strong. Exports hit a record last year of $162 billion.

Why, then, would the Prime Minister risk these tremendous outcomes for Australia? The answer is simply that he and the government would not. Our economy is strong and our work force is strong. Do people really believe that the government would put that in jeopardy and risk mass sackings and decreased working conditions and productivity? That is what the Labor Party predict will happen somehow. They predicted doom and gloom in 1996 and it has not happened, and it will not happen on this occasion. Actions always speak louder than words, and the government’s record speaks for itself.

Work Choices will also move towards one simpler national workplace relations system, cutting back on the 130 different pieces of industrial legislation, the 4,000 awards and six different workplace relations systems operating in different states and territories across Australia. This will result in less confusion, less red tape and less complexity—something that I believe everybody would want. We have heard from the many coalition senators before me that Work Choices will protect the interests of working Australians. I want to reinforce that the minimum wages will be protected and set by the Australian Fair Pay Commission, which will make it impossible for minimum wages to fall below the rates determined by the 2005 safety net. Minimum wages will be adjusted upwards by the AFPC. Unions will still exist and will be allowed to become a bargaining agent for an employee in the Australian workplace agreement negotiations. Unions will also be allowed to access workplaces, but under Work Choices this must be at the request of the employee.

Let me also reinforce that the unlawful dismissal laws will still protect employees from unlawful termination. Workers will not be able to be sacked due to absence from work, illness or injury, because of union membership, for taking part in union activities, for refusing to sign an AWA, or for their race, colour, sexual preference, age, marital status, family responsibility or pregnancy. However, with regard to the unfair dismissal laws, the Australian government will provide a better balance for small business and employers. For too long small businesses have been put off employing more staff because of the costly and sometimes biased processes of unfair dismissal claims. These reforms will do much for small business caught up in the red tape associated with sometimes unreasonable unfair dismissal claims.

I believe in what the coalition government under the power of John Howard and John Anderson, and now of course Mark Vaile, have done for Australia. We are blessed to live and work in this lucky country. The government have contributed to that by increasing the work force, increasing wages, lowering taxes and stabilising interest rates at a much lower level than the Labor government before us. We ask the doubters and scaremongers to look at our record, which clearly speaks for itself. Let the government get on with job we were elected to do as recently as last year: improving the economy for the benefit of all Australians. (Time expired)